The basketball player is bragging again. It is endless. "Do you need a big man in the middle?" he says. He is scowling, shoving a basketball into your face. "Then I'm your man."
He has been doing this for 15 minutes: telling how great he is, how necessary, how unstoppable. "Do you need a guy who can score inside?" he says, cocksure, full of attitude, incredulous that you could even think about anyone else. "Outside? From the line? From just about anywhere on the court? Do you need a shot blocker?" He spins the ball on his finger, looks you dead in the eye. "Do you need an MVP on your team? Then I'm your man."
The director calls for a break. Outside the gym, which is tucked away at the end of a dim, hot hallway in New Jersey's Bayonne High School, the cluster of technicians, ad execs and handlers watching a monitor sit back, look at each other and begin cooing in relief and delight. "He's good! He's really good!" Truth be told, no one involved in this commercial shoot last summer for an Atari video game, Backyard Basketball, which was taped as Tim Duncan and his U.S. teammates practiced in New York City for the Olympic qualifying tournament, knew what to expect from their new spokesman. The San Antonio Spurs forward has, over the seven years of his NBA career, been a paragon of anticharisma. Addressing the world in a polite monotone, complementing his self-effacing game with a dullness so deep that it borders on funny, Duncan has never pounded his chest, drawn a finger across his throat or bantered about some reporter's wacky sport coat. Looking completely uninterested, he rattles off postgame cliches, then flees from the microphone as if from a burning automobile.
But today is different. Today, Duncan is anything but Duncanesque. Never mind that the words come from a script or that he's getting paid well to say them. To hear those words from that mouth is a shock akin to hearing a silent-movie star speak for the first time. Not that any of the words are untrue: Duncan has been named the NBA's Most Valuable Player the last two years. He is indeed your man if you've got a stake in the Spurs' drive for their third championship in six years, or in the U.S. team's hope of reclaiming its preeminence, or in some barroom argument about the one player to build a franchise around. What's surprising is that he's not hesitant to say so. He isn't going through the motions here. He's all edge and aggression, his eyebrows perfectly arched. Either he's the best actor since De Niro or, in sending out a message to an audience of seven-year-olds, Duncan has given himself permission to state his undeniable case.
December 15, 2003
"From just about anywhere on the court? Hey," he says sharply, "I'm your man."
Even when taping stops, the attitude doesn't fade, not completely. Duncan knows his own reputation, and when one of his representatives approaches to say how pleased everyone is with his performance, he begins to giggle. Duncan does this quite a bit when he's relaxed, but for those not accustomed to it, it's like watching one of those Star Trek episodes in which Spock drinks from the wrong cup and gets all goofy and human. Then someone shows Duncan the Backyard Basketball rating system of 1-to-10 cartoon balls for various skill categories, which has given Duncan low marks--one ball only--for outside shooting and, most egregiously, defense. "One?" he says. "But I've been named six times to...."
His voice trails into another giggle, because for someone named six straight years to the NBA All-Defensive first or second team, that's kind of funny. Duncan says no more, but he doesn't forget. When he goes back to be taped taking some shots, he waits until after he buries a succession of three-pointers before loudly chiding the game designers for their error.
"One ball?" he shouts. Swish.
Duncan's nickname, the Big Fundamental, has all the panache of an erector set. He describes talking about himself as torture, so why not just leave him alone? There are plenty of people willing to be expansive on the subject of Duncan. The problem is, they tend to inflate him to proportions he'd be horrified to contemplate. Flashier players go against type and hold Duncan in awe for his unselfishness. "Words can't even describe the type of player he is," Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson says. Jason Kidd of the New Jersey Nets unloads so many compliments--about Duncan's "rare" talent, his "first-class" graciousness--that Kidd blushes. "People probably think I'm getting paid to say all these nice things about him," he says, "but there's nothing bad I can say."
From there, naturally, it's only a small step to seeing the 27-year-old Duncan as the answer to all that's wrong with the NBA, sports in general, the cult of celebrity and the corrupting influence of easy fame and big money. The best clues to Duncan's character lie in plain sight: Athletes reveal themselves most honestly in competition. His game has never been about risk taking or ego. "He's the ultimate team player," says Detroit Pistons and U.S. Olympic coach Larry Brown. "He's just as happy getting eight shots up and seeing his team win as he is scoring 35. It's what our game is supposed to be about. I laugh when people say he doesn't have enough pizzazz. I know him personally. He's incredible; his teammates love him. I would love my son to have him as his role model."
As a player, Duncan is a breed unto himself, a 7-footer who can score from the post and the perimeter and whose transcendent passing skills and underrated ball handling make him the funnel through which the Spurs' offense flows. Beyond that he has the quality most respected in the league: He's a winner. Shaquille O'Neal is an unstoppable force, but Duncan is the one player in the post-Michael Jordan era who knows both how to make his teammates better and when to take over.
Yet outside of San Antonio and summer coaching clinics and gabfests among his peers, Duncan's brilliance is greeted with a resounding yawn. Television ratings for the 2003 NBA Finals were down one third from the year before--down, in fact, to their lowest level since the Nielsen rating system began keeping track of the Finals in 1976. Only one thing had changed since 2002: The small-market Spurs, led by Duncan, were back. Here he was at last, the athlete all the moralists and parents and columnists had been seeking for years, the role model, the anti-Me-Me-Me man, finally coming into his own, showcasing the type of game that hoops aficionados had feared was passing into history. But when it came time to watch, Duncan was found lacking.
Does he have to talk the talk, too? Maybe the NBA, in seeking to jack up ratings with years of personality marketing (Shaq! Michael! The Showdown!), has sold the game so far down the river that excellence isn't enough anymore. Maybe Duncan is the litmus test for separating the pure fan from those who are there for the spectacle. Maybe we like (or need) to watch a superstar perp-walk into a police station. Maybe, in the end, we say we value one thing--teamwork, humility, good citizenship--but really want its opposite and switching channels makes it easy to avoid the obvious. Nobody likes being caught in a lie.
Duncan's wife, Amy, tells this nice little story. Tim had left Wake Forest after graduating in the spring of 1997, and she had no intention of being "that girl back home." She knew all about pro ballplayers and the women on their trail. Amy was going to become a doctor. She wasn't going to be pathetic. She figured she and Tim were through. But he wouldn't have it. For eight months, throughout his breakout rookie year, he called Amy four, five times a day--before practice, after practice, the moment he touched down in a new city--showing how much he needed her, sanding down her suspicion until, finally, the path between them was again as smooth as glass.
Now the subject is brought up to Duncan himself, and the atmosphere in the room changes. For the last few days he has chatted openly, even wittily, about everything from the effect of the Spurs' failed courtship of Kidd on Tony Parker ("His feelings got hurt by everybody, but you have to learn that it's a business") to Duncan's attitude heading into last spring's Western Conference semifinal against the Los Angeles Lakers ("Cool. They'd ended our season the last two years. We wanted to be the ones who sent them home. Let them have that feeling") to his famously vanilla quotes ("Wasn't I on si.com's all-boring team? I'm at the top of my game, baby!"). But now, on a close-to-the-bone subject like romance, Duncan shuts down. He smiles, he stares. He sits in a corner, leaning back in his chair. He doesn't say a word. His wife, sitting on the other side of the room, tries drawing him out.
"I was still in college, and we had those first couple of months when I was convinced you were going to go off and do bad things," Amy says. "Then all the uncertainties went away, and you did that for me, by calling and reassuring me that you weren't ... you weren't out there doing bad things. You rekindled that belief." The words hang out there a good 10 seconds. Finally Tim nods. "Sure," he says.
Everyone sort of laughs, but it's clear that she has put him in an awkward spot. Amy goes quiet, and soon she decides to move. She takes her book and goes outside to the balcony. There's nothing wrong, exactly. Anybody who knows Tim will tell you that Amy has broadened him socially; anyone who has seen them work a charity event knows that she's even more committed than he is to making an impact; anyone who hears Tim talk about Amy knows that he trusts her completely. "It's not a typical NBA relationship," says Tim's agent, Lon Babby. "It's a real marriage, a real partnership. You have no doubt they're going to be together in 30 years."
After 15 minutes Amy comes in from the balcony. She plants herself on the floor to Tim's left, near his feet. Once, almost imperceptibly, she leans forward and kisses his knee. He fields a few more questions, and she interjects a memory or clarifies a point. Tim never shows a trace of annoyance; no one doubts his intelligence, and he's secure enough to welcome being corrected. Asked if winning a championship is everything it's supposed to be, Tim says, "Yeah, it is, but it's a little miscon ... skewed? Mis ... con...?"
"Misconstrued," Amy says.
"Misconstrued," Tim repeats. "People say, 'You've done this once, you've won twice, what else do you have left to do?' That's the stupidest question I ever heard. To do it over and over again--you can't beat that. Every time that you don't win it, it's more disappointing."
The afternoon before the U.S.'s Olympic qualifying opener against Brazil in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Duncan is banging around his hotel room, talking about the strangeness of playing against his homeland, the U.S. Virgin Islands, later in the week. The phone rings. "Come on up," Duncan says, then he puts down the phone and starts to laugh.
Rashidi Clenance and Duncan have known each other since elementary school. They competed for rival high schools on St. Croix, and they team up each summer for a youth basketball clinic on the island. When the knock comes, Duncan announces, "Here's this retard," and flings open the door. He hugs Clenance and, glancing down at the man's Duncan-endorsed Adidas sneakers, giggles, "You wearing the stripes! You got to represent!"
When his friends try to explain Duncan, the first place they turn is the island. Duncan grew up there with his father, jack-of-all-tradesman Bill Duncan, and mother, Ione; two older sisters, Cheryl and Tricia; and Cheryl's husband, Ricky Lowery, who was as close to Tim as a brother. Bill Duncan all but doubled the size of their home singlehandedly--every nail and truss, every shingle had to be pounded and fit just right, above code--and the house, like the man, was a rock. When Hurricane Hugo tore through in 1989, leveling trees, peeling the corrugated tin off the homes around them, the Duncans huddled in a small cinder-block bathroom while Bill sat out on a bed for five hours, eyeing the seams and just daring that roof to move. It didn't.
Self-reliance was valued in the Duncan home; self-importance was not. When Dave Odom, the coach at Wake Forest, called Tim in the fall of his senior year in high school to set up the boy's first interview with a big-time coach (the ACC! Division I!), Tim shrugged. "Yeah," he said, "you can come down if you want to."
Duncan is, at this point, the most famous athlete in Virgin Islands history. Yet some countrymen think that he doesn't care enough about the folks back home. "They see him being interviewed and expect him to mention the Virgin Islands more, say hello to home, whatever," says Clenance, now a prominent media personality on the island. "There are those who feel he doesn't do enough. Just because he doesn't do it in front of a television camera, some think he doesn't have that love."
The problem, though, is not that Duncan feels too little for his home. It's that he feels too much. The buttery tropical light, the blue-green waters stretching to the horizon: For most, they're just postcard images of an idyllic island. But for Duncan they carry memories charged with pain. Tricia was a backstroker for the V.I. at the '88 Olympics in Seoul, and at 13 Tim was considered one of the top U.S. freestylers in his age group; even then he had the rare ability to wall himself off from pressure. "I don't think it exists for him," says Michael Lohberg, his former swim coach. "He creates his own world." Their mother was the driving force behind those soggy training days, shuttling the children to practice, volunteering as a timer, repeating her mantra, "Good, better, best/Never let it rest/Until your good is better and your better is your best." During meets, beneath the water, Tim and Tricia could hear their mother's voice cheering them on.
"Timmy! Tricie! It was so embarrassing," Tricia says. "Now we would give anything to have that embarrassment."
On the day before Tim's 14th birthday, just weeks after the six-month power blackout caused by Hugo had fully lifted, Ione Duncan died of breast cancer. After Tim got the news from his father, who was at the hospital, he walked into Tricia's bedroom and told her. She began sobbing. She's sure that Tim must have cried too, but her lasting memory of that moment is of Tim walking out, silently planting himself in front of the TV and playing video games the rest of the morning. His birthday got lost in the grieving. By the time of the funeral he felt like an old man.
"I've been grown-up for a long time," he says. "I went through that with my mom, and I grew to where I understood life and death and everything in between. It does make you realize your own mortality and the mortality of the people around you. You understand that you're not going to be around forever. You're not invincible."
Bill Duncan worried about his son's stoicism, wondered how Tim could keep so much inside without cracking. Tim, certain to this day that he would have been good enough to swim for the V.I. in the Olympics, quit the sport cold. He began playing more and more basketball with Lowery, first one-on-one, then in pickup games. Lowery, a former player at Division III Capital University, took one look at Tim's big hands and springy frame, saw how much the kid hated to lose, and knew what he had to work with.
He put Tim through endless drills, dribbling on stones, up stairs, carrying Lowery on his back around the front yard. By the time Tim went to Wake Forest, he could score with his left hand as well as his right. Four years later, when Tim's number, 21, was retired after one of the great careers in college basketball history, Bill Duncan took a microphone on court and began talking about Ione and her death and how only he and Tim could know how proud she would be. Then he began to say the mantra again--Good, better, best ...--and Tim's defenses kicked in. He walked up behind his father, "draped him," Odom recalls, "almost like a vine," and said, "That's enough, Dad."
Bill Duncan died of prostate cancer during the 2002 NBA playoffs. Five days later his children and other family members went out on a boat to a point off St. Croix and poured their father's ashes into the sea. More than once during Olympic qualifying, Tim said how much Bill would have liked to be there, hitting the restaurants, soaking up his son's accomplishments in an island setting. Getting to the Olympics had always been a fantasy for Tim. That he couldn't do it with the Virgin Islands--the island's basketball program was in disarray when he played his first competition for the U.S., in 1994, and international rules rarely allow a reversal--was something he accepted.
But the game between the U.S. and the Virgin Islands is another matter. Tim has never been more conflicted. There's something disturbing about getting ready to destroy the team he once dreamed of playing for, the people he grew up with. He has already flip-flopped once, saying he wouldn't suit up, and then, the day before tip-off, decided to play. But now, the afternoon of the game, Duncan has changed his mind again. The V.I. team, missing three of its best players, has been pummeled daily in the tournament. During warmups, with the undefeated U.S. squad at one basket and the winless Virgin Islands team at the other, Duncan is shooting when he notices the islanders filing slowly off the court to their locker room. He stops, holds the ball and watches until every player is out of sight. He looks as if he wants to go with them. Just before tip-off, after the teams exchange gifts, Duncan smiles and shakes hands with as many V.I. players as he can. Then he tells Calvert White, the one he's known the longest, that he's sitting this one out.
The U.S. wins 113-55. Duncan refuses all interviews afterward, issuing a typically dry statement about this being "the best gesture to make" and "the right thing to do." He doesn't mention his mom's voice ringing over the water or the summer days spent pounding nails with his father or Hugo's terrifying howl or all those pickup games in St. Croix during which he discovered who Tim Duncan was. He doesn't mention loyalty. He doesn't use the word love.
"Now everybody knows Tim Duncan is from the Virgin Islands," Clenance says later that night. "Now they know that he's proud of that. This is the only way I know Tim to do things. Talk is cheap. This was the ultimate statement he could make today--and he didn't even open his mouth."
The silent man makes everybody nervous. It's an old saw of negotiating that the less you say, the more your opponent reveals. Duncan lives this. There are players who babble and bait him, none more than Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett, whose athletic gifts as a 7-footer match (or even exceed) Duncan's. Yet Duncan never speaks on the court. "Emotion doesn't work for me," he says. "If I get too high or low, something always happens. If there's 10 seconds left and I hit a shot and I'm jumping up and down and high-fiving everybody on the side? It's a guaran-damn-tee that they're going to hit a shot and the game's going to be over. And I'm going to look like an ass."
But then there's the quality that separates Duncan from all the sweet-tempered giants who never panned out, the thing that makes him one of the greatest players ever: He enjoys what happens when he doesn't speak. It gives him control and, paired with his skill, frustrates his victims, shames them, beats them mentally as much as physically. Duncan isn't like Shaq, wearing out the opposition with his bulk. He's Garry Kasparov in hightops, a former psychology major who delights in the power of his silence. "You destroy people's psyches when you do that," he says. "You absolutely destroy them. They can't get inside your head. They're talking to you, and there's no response other than to make this shot, make this play, get this rebound and go the other way. People hate that."
When, during college, Duke center Greg Newton ripped Duncan for being "passive," "soft" and "babyish" after one game, reporters dutifully trotted to Duncan for a response, sure that he would rise to the bait. The insults were just too blatant. "He's a great player," Duncan said calmly, and Newton has been living down the comments ever since.
When Duncan distances himself from even his peers, it is as calculated as it is effective; it creates mystery. "People don't know anything about me," he says, "and it's good." Nearly any conversation with Duncan is on his terms. When Odom started pitching the 16-year-old Duncan on the merits of Wake Forest, he found himself competing with a football game on TV; holding his temper over such rudeness, Odom plopped himself down next to the screen so Duncan would be forced to glance at him during timeouts.
"[His aloofness] drives people nuts," Amy says, "and the fact that he knows that gives him the power. In our personal lives, neither of us is confrontational, but he knows that not saying anything, or saying, 'You're right,' infuriates me. It's very difficult to win an argument with Tim."
Ever. Remember: Duncan's a winner. That may sound elementary, but it's not. An athlete's drive often rises from sources far from competition--from rage or poverty or violence or Daddy's leaving home, from the desire to be famous or loved. The game is almost incidental. Duncan comes from none of that. His body made him a good player, his work ethic allowed him to improve, but it's his basic need to prevail that made him excel. For Duncan, everything but the competition is incidental. He actually hated swimming; only the prospect of competing at the meets kept him going. He has resisted all thought of leaving San Antonio because its remoteness keeps the ancillary aspects of stardom to manageable size. "Everything I do is basic, and that doesn't sell," Duncan says. "I don't have the icing. My icing is, I just want to win." Such simplicity is boring to some, but for those watching closely, "there's a purity there," Odom says, "that's almost surreal."
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich saw that and used it. His greatest achievement may be that, before last season, he divined Duncan's deepest appetite and used it for his own purposes. With David Robinson slowed by injuries and without a firebrand leader like Avery Johnson, the coach pushed Duncan to break free at last of his own reticence. He insisted that Duncan be the one bucking up teammates with a word or a touch, the one working officials, the one suggesting plays and keeping order on the court. But Duncan resisted; he called himself "a blender, not a leader." Only when Popovich asserted that the team couldn't win otherwise did Duncan buy in. "That's the one way I could get it across," Popovich says.
Early last season some Spur made a mistake, and during the ensuing timeout Duncan sidled up to his coach and said, "Do I have him or do you have him?" Then Duncan took the player aside and talked to him, and Popovich knew the season was going to get very interesting. After that, Duncan seemed freer than ever, showing a flair that few imagined in him: a three-pointer here, a behind-the-back dribble there, all seven feet of him leading the fast break end-to-end. Now he was talking during huddles, now he was talking during timeouts, now he was slyly chiding Popovich for some backfired motivational ploy. Duncan had become everything the video game's commercial script claimed him to be.
"Will he stand in front of you and say, 'This is my team?' Absolutely not," Amy says. "He's never going to put himself in a position where it's just about him. If it is, he's going to take a long, hard look at himself, because that's not the person he wants to be."
She's right on one count. Duncan isn't standing. No, he tilts his chair back and, face blank, quietly states what he has never been able to state before. "It is my team," he says. "It's got to be."
He rattles off postgame cliches, then flees from the microphone as if from a burning automobile.
Maybe Duncan is the litmus test for separating the pure fan from those who are there for the spectacle.
Some Virgin Islanders think he doesn't care enough about the folks back home. In fact, he cares too much.
"Everything I do is basic," Duncan says. "I don't have the icing. My icing is, I just want to win."